Shot! The War Of The Worlds in Brighton
Despite being billed as The Life Begins Again tour, time has finally caught up with Jeff Wayne’s ageing arena show
One of my all-time favourite quotes is from the US baseball coach Yogi Berra who came up with the brilliant line “It’s déjà vu, all over again.” That quip perfectly sums up both The War of the Worlds and this review.
Like so many other tours, this one was delayed by Covid. But history shows there’s no stopping Jeff Wayne. Back in 2014, his musical was being hyped as ‘The Final Arena Tour’ but of course it returned “by popular demand” and now in 2022 it was back again, this time under the banner of ‘The Life Begins Again Tour.’
As I said in my review of the 2018 show, (the last time it toured) its creator clearly believes in the adage never say never. Indeed Jeff Wayne has built a highly lucrative career out of a record he first released way back in 1978.
That original double album remains one of the biggest selling in the UK. Since then, Wayne has released various new versions featuring different guest singers, put on a stage show at London’s Dominion Theatre and since 2006, toured the live show extensively in arenas around the world. In addition, since 2019, he also stages an ‘Immersive Experience’ theatrical event of the seminal HG Wells novel in London.
Of course, to borrow from the opening line of the book, when Wayne first had the idea of doing a musical version of The War of the World, no one would have believed it would have been so successful or so enduring that at the age of 78 (soon to be 79) he’d still be performing it to sold out arenas with his own daughter as a member of the cast.
In many ways, he got lucky, very lucky. HG Wells’ book hadn’t been his first choice to make a musical version of. It was just one of many stories his father suggested he consider. By his own admission, the fact he settled on it was fortuitous. Of course, the subject matter — a Martian invasion — is still as fascinating now as it was 44 years ago. What’s more, a story set in Victorian England is no more dated today than it was when the album first came out.
Two other factors play into its longevity. That much of the music is classically-driven means it hasn’t dated the way so many other concept albums have. And the decision to feature a cast of well-known voices (the original featured the likes of David Essex and Phil Lynott) has allowed it to be updated with contemporary vocalists.
Add to this, the cult following the show has attracted, means there’s always been an audience for the live performances, as well as the extensive merch line — from tea towels to Christmas sweaters — that has now become highly collectible.
Over the years, Wayne has changed the cast and refreshed the music, as well as updating the live show. That being said, the last time I saw it I questioned whether time had finally caught up with the stage production. With Jeff himself promising “some of the most exciting technology imaginable” and the show itself claiming “Otherworldly special effects” for 2022, the big question was going to be had he done enough to breathe new life into a show that’s now in its 16th touring year?
That a wholly underwhelming leaf drop over the audience is considered to be among the show’s ‘special effects’ sets a low bar.
Having now seen The War Of The Worlds no less than four times at the same venue, and being a regular reviewer of live music, I think I’m better positioned than most to judge if this ‘new, improved’ version lived up to its promise or it was past its prime.
Last time out, I wrote “When so much of what we hear onstage is pre-recorded, it’s perhaps even more impressive to experience a stage full of actual musicians and a 36-piece string section.” Fast-forward to 2022 and I have to say, the sound created by the UllaDubUlla strings just didn’t have the same effect. Even playing alongside the 9-piece Black Smoke Band, the sonic impact just wasn’t there. Purists may disagree, but I’ve witnessed much bigger sounds eminating from far fewer musicians.
In that same review I called out the visual elements as being the show’s biggest let down. I stand by that assertation, although not everyone agrees with me.
Another reviewer writing about this very same Brighton show lauded it “a masterpiece of theatrics” going on to say “despite its age it’s still as fresh and exciting as it always has been.”
He added “It also contains more multimedia elements than almost any other show that can ever have been developed for the stage. To say the experience is spectacular barely scratches the surface of an evening that seems to have been put together as if cost were no object.”
That’s not how I saw it. Far from it.
The truth is, technology has not just caught up with the production, but surpassed it. Most big acts now play in front of a stage-wide hi-res video screen and many incorporate far more impressive visual effects.
The much-hyped hologram appearances by Liam Neeson, also show their age. It’s far from spectacular. As far as I know, his ‘performance’ is the same one that was filmed in 2011.
Worse still, in order for Neeson’s image to appear, the two Victorian streetlamps whose poles facilitate the screen’s appearance, remain on stage throughout and just get in the way. An on-stage actor would have been far better.
In previous reviews I’ve been critical of the staging, particularly the lack of a dedicated performance area for the cast. As nothing has changed, I can only reiterate how visually jarring I still find it that they perform against a backdrop of musicians and instruments.
But for me, the least impressive part of the production is the supposed star of the show: the Martian Fighting Machine. Dominating the stage throughout the entire performance, with its limited mobility and frankly pathetic fireworks, this 30-foot-tall tripod really is on its last legs and should have been retired and replaced. Four years ago I labelled it am-dram and once again the same could be said of some of the performers, too. Curiously, none of the cast have substantial roles, most making only the briefest of appearances.
It was no surprise that the most memorable performance comes from the Artilleryman. Admittedly, it’s the biggest, most energetic role with the most stage time.
This year it was played by Strictly dancer Kevin Clifton. Despite a tendency to overact — a trait also shared by his forerunners — he was by some distance the standout cast member, although I still think Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefs played the role best when he did so back in 2012.
And once again, Inglorious lead singer Nathan James, returning as the Voice of Humanity, delivered a belting version of Thunder Child, one of the score’s most powerful songs.
Sadly, plaudits can’t be given to the three other big names in this year’s cast. Both Blue’s Duncan James and Step’s Claire Richards, demonstrated they had been picked to add ‘star quality’ to the show, rather than their ability to deliver a memorable performance as the Parson and his wife.
To be fair, there’s little scope to shine in either role, but Richards in particular came across as wooden as the cross Duncan James’s Parson held aloft. Having seen her just a few months earlier performing with Steps in the same venue, the contrast here was marked. In a curly brown wig, she was almost unrecognisable and despite having the best voice in Steps, proved it’s actually not that distinctive when she’s on her own.
The same can’t be said of Justin Hayward. The veteran Moody Blues vocalist — who appeared on both the original album and in the first stage production — returned as the Journalist. But despite retaining his long blond locks, he’s now 75 and looked decidedly bored whenever he was onstage. He performs the show’s biggest hit, Forever Autumn, and whilst I’ve no doubt he can still sing, there were several instances where I wondered whether he was lip-syncing.
Brickbats aside, I do of course understand why people still love the show and why so many come away singing its praises. But for anyone who, like me, regularly goes to see big artists onstage, it surely must be apparent that — after all this years — this production is really showing its age.
Rather than the odd tweak here and there, it requires rethinking from the ground up. The staging needs a major reboot as does the music production as this too is beginning to sound somewhat dated.
Despite this, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see it again in its current form. Knowing Jeff Wayne, it’s almost inevitable. Indeed, 16 years after making its arena debut, it continues to attract a devoted audience. It may be on the wane, but still they come.
Epilogue: The tour’s last scheduled date in Amsterdam was postponed rather than cancelled due to a surge of Covid throughout The Netherlands. Apparently, a documentary of the 2022 tour is in the works.
Behind the image: All these images were shot handheld with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and the 75mm 1.8 lens using the camera’s built-in digital zoom and available light only. I was the only accredited photographer at the Brighton show and although I was permitted to shoot the entire performance, I couldn’t position myself anywhere in front of the seated audience. This meant I was crouched in the aisle in front of the small B stage at the back of the auditorium. From experience, I knew it would be a challenging show to shoot — the performers aren’t onstage for very long and it’s particularly difficult to get shots with the clean background I like. Because of this, I’m pleased to have come away with another set of interesting images, the best of which are undoubtedly of the Artilleryman.
About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens. On the writing side, he has also penned deep dives into some of his favourite songs and has written a biography of Robert Palmer. All these can be found here on Medium, along with his reviews of gigs and events and chats with musicians.